By: Douglas Wood
When they pack up her house, a photograph will fall from the pages of a novel, carving arcs in the air as it drifts to the carpet. Pictured is an old falling-down barn. No one alive knows that this barn was built on the foundation of an even older falling-down barn, after it too fell down. No photographs, no paintings of that older structure exist, the thatched roof, the wattle and daub walls. No living soul heard the crack and the pop of the flames or remembers the charred east corner.
On those sturdy bones, late one forgotten summer, a farmer—a fat and frugal man, fond of lager—put nails to boards and reanimated the structure that housed his small herd of dairy cows. Just in time, too. Days after the repairs were completed, the herd paraded noisily home, decked out in flower garlands with clanking, pumpkin-sized bells after months of grazing in the rolling green of Alpine meadows.
The farmer patted a few flat haunches but let the hired hands put his girls away. He felt a chill coming on. The following week, he was looking at the ancient pine outside his bedroom window when he died, a casualty of the great influenza outbreak of 1918.
A widower, he left the whole of the farm—house, cows, barn and all—to his oldest child, a cheerless, middle-aged daughter married for some years to the itinerant laborer hired during the barn’s reconstruction. By the time her father died, the daughter had so frequently, so forcefully proclaimed herself as the logical heir that her brothers and stepsister had already pursued other unclaimed ambitions. Her husband had been dabbling in this and that ever since their hurried wedding and six children, hoping a career would present itself before farm life took hold of him. No such luck. Thanks to his wife’s shrewd accounting skills and the rigor she demanded from him, the farm prospered and grew, their Gruyere gaining some local renown. Twenty-some years later, this farmer, who never wanted to be a farmer, was still farming. To his dismay, he was also co-owner of a barn whose roof desperately needed fixing.
At his wife’s prodding, the farmer—having lost his willpower as well as his waistline—repaired the barn one board, one wooden shingle, one grudging nail at a time, with a thought to running out the clock of his life. But he lived longer than he intended, and despite himself, the work was completed. Spring came. And a whim: the reluctant farmer erected an easel in the barn. Soon, he was painting again, like he’d done in school. For long hours, he stole away when his forbidding wife was otherwise occupied to paint oil portraits of his favorite cows in various settings and configurations. A cherished brush in his hand, his cheeks ever so faintly dappled with cobalt, on a cloudless summer afternoon, his heart sputtered and stopped. He fell with a heavy thud in dust that billowed gold in the beams of light.
For the following year or two, the newly minted widow leaned on her eldest son. Unfortunately, he had inherited his father’s ambivalence toward the place and was determined to escape the grip of rural life. At the first opportunity, he joined the military with all the other able-bodied and not-so-able-bodied young and not-so-young men. He was given a uniform and sent east in the fighting. Weekly, his mother wrote him breathless letters detailing the triumphs of the farm, the rich profits from milk, cheese, cream, and so on. Later, with no less glee, her letters concerned whose house the British had bombed in the nearby village and how much she thought to buy it for.
The war ended and the gray-eyed soldier folded his uniform into a trunk in his childhood bedroom. The farm he had returned to was not merely operational, but larger than the one he’d left. His mother’s stony resolve had grown, as well; she would have him succeed her. Like his father, he did not contradict her. Instead, he used his strong back to swing open the barn’s complaining door, and with a length of rope, he hung himself by the neck from a sturdy beam. A series of vague infirmities plagued the old woman after: palpitations, phantom pains, dizzy spells. A neighbor offered her a fair price, but out of spite, she sold the farm at auction for next to nothing, moving in with her much younger sister, whose feral children tormented her final days.
The new owners, brothers and businessmen from the capital, had hoped to turn a profit by leasing out the farm. Luck was not on their side, and tenants were few. For years, the barn stood, growing too decrepit to use, too expensive to tear down. Each year, the weight of winter snow threatened to crush it once and for all. But each spring it stood.
Boys from the village came to explore. They broke windows, smoked pot, laughed, and dreamed big. One May afternoon, employing the full measure of his charms, a shopkeeper’s assistant persuaded the pastor’s daughter to hide away with him in the stale straw of the loft. In January, he told his co-workers she was a whore, and the baby she carried meant nothing to him. The farm was sold to a Frenchman, who gave it as a wedding gift to his son. He sold it, in turn, after just three years, grateful he could pay for his daughter’s leukemia treatments in Canada. The barn sank to its knees.
The current owner, a second cousin of the pastor’s daughter—though he had neither met her, nor heard her name—shored it up, replaced the rotted walls and roof, and expanded it. Newly married with an elegant bride, he was already counting his profits, prepared to shower his beloved with all the luxuries she deserved once the herd was built up.
She never set foot in the stupid old barn—she barely spent time in the house. She preferred drives into the city to shop with her mother, or dances at discotheques with her sister’s friends, or symphonies with her Spanish lover. One day, she drove down to the city and never returned. The barn did not notice she had left. It was only a barn.
Her farmer husband proceeded to alienate family, friends, and uncounted patrons at the local inn with the tale of her disloyalty and his hatred of all things Spanish. Nightly, for sixteen years, with one foot on the floor to stop the bedroom from spinning, the farmer drifted toward unconsciousness, certain in one thing: that if this stingy farm hadn’t betrayed him, his delicate wife would be curled up, perfumed against his side right now.
For almost two decades, dawn has woken him like an ice pick to the temple. Still, he soldiers out to the splintery barn to tend to the cows and goats, repair rotted beams, or change the broken hinges if he must—but he refuses to paint the fucking thing.
The young woman, a poet from America, jams the cork into the half-empty bottle of Riesling. Her dark-haired lover packs up the rest of their picnic, pitching the clinking plates into the wicker basket along with the Gruyere, and shutting the lid with such force it nearly snaps off. If she confronts him, he’ll deny it, so she allows him another of his Teutonic moods. It will pass.
All she said was this: if he doesn’t want the answer, he shouldn’t ask. But he asked. Of course, he did. That’s his way. So, she told him that her answer hadn’t changed. Now, he’s making her pay for it with huffs and martyred sighs. That’s his way, too.
They walk side by side down the dappled lane toward the room they share. She takes his damp hand in hers. It feels boneless. Her eyes remain fixed on the ruts below their feet. Their conjoined shadows glide over the clods. His name is Paschal. She has never known another Paschal, not in all of her twenty-three years. His love will be the birth or death of her, she is sure—isn’t that what love is?
A scalp-pinching strand of hair is hung up under the strap of her bag. With both hands, she releases it and gathers her loose frizz into something less painful but still presentable.
Disengaged, Paschal takes the opportunity to plunge his liberated hand into his pants pocket. He takes the lead. His shoulder blades poke through his t-shirt like twin hatchets. She’s convinced she outweighs him but is afraid to ask. Together, separate, they turn and continue up the weedy path they’d walked together a hundred times. A bird complains. Burrs catch on the hem of her skirt. She wore a skirt today instead of jeans. For him.
They pass a field with cows frozen in their poses. The old dairy farm. The two of them keep their gazes resolutely ahead. Weeks ago, under a night sky dizzy with stars, seated just there on a little rise, he asked for the first time. She declined. Paschal wept and she held his head in her lap, stroked the fine bones of his face. A sickle moon rose higher and higher above the barn’s roof.
Paschal’s longer gait takes him to the turn in the path before her. She says, “Wait. I want to take a picture.”
With a weighted sigh, he leans on the fence post and taps a cigarette out of the pack.
She drops her bag in the weeds and retrieves her new camera, the old-fashioned kind with a long lens, a graduation present. She clicks: a single shot of the barn with silvery boards as it peeks from behind the little grove of fruit trees. A day moon floats just above, chalky looking, faint in the sunlight. Beyond, a field yellowing for lack of rain. Behind it all, the mountain peaks are hidden, implied.
Delighted, suddenly his sunnier self, Paschal bursts into laughter and asks in English if she’s some kind of fucking tourist now. He snags her free hand and pulls her close. Her heart pounds like it’s trying to break free from the confines of her chest. Any second he will tease her about it, she’s certain, some joke about this outsized hammering. But he does not. His lips press into hers in a tender kiss that lasts almost forever.
If he asks her at this moment, she will say yes.
But he does not ask. Without a thought beyond each other, they thread their hands, duck under a fence, and cut across a field toward a copse of skinny trees, bare like shins below their swaying canopies. Behind: the barn, the rise, the little grove.
After Paschal’s epic flame-out, after psycho Greg, after she cheated on Tony with his brother Joe, after Filipe with those shoulders, after steady Russ and the marathon that is their shared life with three children and zero chapbooks, after retirement from a thankless job, her ailing parents, the increasing silences—after all this life, she still feels a pang when she comes upon a certain kind of barn in a certain fading light.
When she and her husband redecorate, she moves the excruciating photo from the shoebox and tucks it inside a paperback that Russ would never read. She will not open the book again, but glances from time to time at that high shelf, reassured by the solidity of the cracked spine.
Across the world, the old barn stands still, a home for rats, cats, and owls, recently a gelding. Occasionally, it stores a truck needing repairs, or lumber too warped to use, too good to throw away. The smells: sweet hay, wood, manure, iron, moist earth, motor oil.
Look there. At this moment, a shaft of dusty light jabs through a hole in the roof, penetrates, and is withdrawn, quick as a magician’s blade.
Douglas Wood received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert. His short stories and poetry have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Rattling Wall, The Eeel, Rise Up Review, and Writers Resist among others.